Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

13. Fruit Basket Upset

Although I found my closest academic affinities within the Microbiology Department, I strongly disagreed with the division of the SOLS faculty into a favored predominantly graduate-research set and a primarily undergraduate teaching component. A differentiation of a faculty into individuals with diverse academic interests is inevitable, but to institutionalize this particular orientation in alignment with departmental structure seem to me to be contrary to the ideal of an academic community.

For such reasons, I cast my lot with the Zoology Department – which had nominally recruited me – and began to explore a more equitable and effective organization of the faculty.  This project attempted to rearrange the 120 or so faculty members of SOLS into more functional units.  I believed that ideally every faculty member would work more effectively with at least one “buddy”, some colleague familiar with his/her teaching and research efforts and willing to consult on a regular basis. But I couldn’t accept the elevation of a few disciplinary claques for augmented support while other scholars worked in isolation and with limited support. My personal experience suggested that “buddies” were often scattered in different departments and different buildings. I thought their physical and administrative connections should be improved. With Doc Halvorson’s connivance I undertook to ascertain how other faculty members evaluated their professional relationships. I constructed what we called a “Faculty Affinity Survey”.  I toyed with the idea of providing criteria for associating faculty members on the basis of identifiable characteristics – classes taught, journals read, techniques used, society memberships, etc., but in the end we allowed faculty members to define and weigh their own criteria, and to provide a simple numerical rating, from 1 – 4.

The effectiveness of such an exercise depended on the faculty members’ awareness of the attributes of their fellows.  This knowledge had been acquired in most cases by the time of the affinity survey through regular faculty meetings, discussions over course offerings and curriculum requirements, special cross-departmental committee structures, and a fully democratic set of by-laws that functioned in a contained democratic society.  The role of a trusted even-handed Director is not to be discounted.  The School of Life Sciences under the guidance of Director Halvorson was truly a community of scholars who shared information and experience and decided academic policies in an open forum.

The affinity survey results were analyzed by David Eades, an Entomologist knowledgeable about numerical taxonomy, who applied a computer treeing program to the faculty responses.  The dendrogram  (Table 1) demonstrated that the departmental compositions at the time were not “functional” by the criteria provided.  On the other hand, taxonomy was not a totally unimportant determinant of perceived affinities.  Particularly a group of the entomologists preferred not to be associated with other cytologists or ecologists; similarly the botany department cohered despite some tendency to fly apart.  Some wag commented that botanists are often swayed by semantic confusion; because animals eat plants, zoologists are likely to eat botanists. The zoology department, it happened, was the least coherent existing unit.  The microbiologists were the most united in the current associations, but more by their adherence to molecular biology than to any taxonomic category.

Out of this analysis came a proposal with a relatively modest shuffling of existing staff.  The Zoology Department would be decomposed.  Two new departments would be developed: Ecology, Ethology and Evolution on the one hand, and Genetics and Development on the other. Small numbers of faculty members would move into new provisional units from the continuing departments of Botany, Physiology and Microbiology.  I agreed to be the final head of Zoology during its destruction, but soon found myself unable to bear the emotional burdens of uprooted faculty members, and soon asked for relief.  Robert Metcalf, who had recently joined the Entomology Department, and who was an experienced administrator from California, agreed to take over the terminal administration of the Zoology Department, which however lasted much longer than anyone had expected. Academic units sometimes die slowly.